Space heaters are handy little machines that can heat your home or RV on cold, winter nights. They are also notoriously dangerous when used incorrectly.
On average, 25,000 fires are started by space heaters in the US every year. While around 6000 ER visits are down to space heaters.
I’m not trying to scare you and you certainly don’t need to dump your space heater. I just want to make sure that you use them safely.
One of the common questions around space heaters is whether or not you can use them with surge protectors.
It might seem like a no-brainer. Surge protectors are safer than basic power strips. It should be fine, right?
Well, let’s take a closer look.
What is a Surge Protector?
A surge protector is a device that protects electrical equipment from voltage spikes and surges.
Spikes can be caused by lightning strikes, short circuits, power outages, and tripped circuit breakers.
Essentially, these spikes deliver excessive amounts of energy to your devices which can damage them or, in extreme cases, cause fires.
Surge protectors are made with materials that provide resistance to electricity. When a spike passes through a surge protector the resistance reduces the surge to normal levels.
Surge protectors can be single or multi-outlets.
Single outlet surge protectors plug into the wall outlet. Your device then plugs into the surge protector.
Multi-outlet surge protectors look like power strips. The surge protection is built into the plug part of the strip. All devices connected to the surge protector are protected from spikes.
The resistance elements in surge protectors are not indestructible. They are designed to resist a specified number of joules. This will be listed on the packaging.
Once the protector has dealt with the specified number of joules, it no longer offers any surge protection.
Unfortunately, surge protectors don’t usually come with an indicator that tells you when it stops working. Some more expensive models have a light that turns on when it is not working anymore. Others shut off when the surge protection is reduced.
You need to replace surge protectors every two years or after a big hit. If you know that your protectors have worked hard, perhaps during a storm or outage, replace them.
If you can’t remember when you bought the surge protector, definitely replace it!
What are Space Heaters?
Space heaters are portable heaters. They can be used to heat a room as opposed to a whole house.
Most space heaters are electrical and use a heated metal or ceramic element to warm the air. They tend to have fans that distribute the warm air around the room. This kind of space heater is called a convection heater.
You can also get infrared heaters that still use a heating element to warm air. However, most of the heat is radiant heat which is transferred directly to people or objects in a room.
Combustion space heaters are available. These use fuel like oil or gas to heat the element. They are more dangerous as the fuel can leak and cause a house fire.
Space heaters get a bad rep because they have been used incorrectly.
You should never place anything in front of a space heater. This is especially true of flammable materials like clothing and paper.
While the heating elements are generally protected to stop burns, fabrics and paper can sometimes make contact.
Modern, electrical heaters sometimes have a safety feature that turns off the heater if a sensor is covered. This means that they won’t work if they’re blocked or covered.
Tipped space heaters also cause damage to people and homes. This is especially true of the combustion heater. Tipped heaters are what tend to spill the fuel.
Again, modern heaters like this one have a sensor that shuts off the heating element if the unit is tipped over.
As long as space heaters are used safely and according to the instructions, they are perfectly fine to use in the home or RV.
Space Heaters and Surge Protectors
There is a lot of confusion about whether or not you can plug space heaters into surge protectors.
The main reason for this is that people tend to use the terms ‘surge protector’ and ‘power cord’ interchangeably.
Manufacturers, fire departments, and the Department of Energy all advise against plugging a space heater into a power strip. They are very clear that you should plug your space heater into the wall outlet.
The reason for this is that space heaters generate an awful lot of energy and cheap power strips aren’t designed to cope with the energy demands. Power strips can overheat and cause electrical fires which can be devastating.
If you must use a power strip, it needs to be a heavy-duty one made from at least 14 gauge wire.
You also need to consider the amp usage.
Your average space heater draws 12.5A of electricity when in use. Most power strips can deal with about 15A. There’s not a lot of room left for other devices. If you plug a space heater into a power strip with insufficient amperage, you are going to blow it.
With surge protectors, the advice is the same. You need a heavy gauge wire and enough amps.
Notice that amps and joules are different. Your surge protector might be able to deal with 3940 joules in case of a spike but it will probably still have a 15A rating.
With the right gauge wire and amperage, you can theoretically plug a space heater into a surge protector.
However, it is always much safer to plug your space heater directly into the wall outlet. Wall outlets are designed to cope with high amp appliances while surge protectors are not.
Plugging your space heater into a wall outlet reduces the number of wires and circuits the energy has to go through which ultimately reduces the risk of shortages or blowouts.
My advice? Stick to the wall outlet.